Politics & Elections

Talking redistricting with PVD Ward Boundaries Chair Jessica Cigna

“I was really humbled by all the people who came out and spoke to us,” said Jessica Cigna. “We heard over and over again people talking about trauma and people talking about the things of the past. There was a lot that people brought up to us that was visible in the work that we were doing but not under our control or under our purview.”
Photo for Talking redistricting with PVD Ward Boundaries Chair Jessica Cigna

Published on March 16, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

Jessica Cigna chaired the Providence Ward Boundaries Committee with a true openness and transparency that, in this author’s opinion, could be a model for the state as a whole going forward. Cigna stepped into the role at a historic time in the City’s redistricting history. This year marked an entirely new process, established by changes to the City Charter in 2012 that attempted to de-politicize the process – as much as the Overton Window allowed a decade ago – and established strong criteria for the decisions that need to be made when redrawing the Providence City Council ward boundaries.

The following criteria are from the charter:

  1. Equality of ward populations so far as practicable;
  2. Contiguousness of the territory of each ward;
  3. Wards shall comply with the federal Voting Rights Act (42 U.S.C. Sec. 1971 and following).
  4. The geographic integrity of local neighborhood; and
  5. Geographical compactness such that nearby areas of population are not bypassed for more distant populations.

A sixth criteria was that the residency of elected city council members and potential candidates for city council could not be considered in the making of the maps.

Cigna led the process in a way that impressed, so Uprise RI reached out for an interview. We spoke on a rainy Saturday morning in the Community Room of the Rochambeau Public Library.

We started with a brief introduction to Cigna’s career, followed by an explanation as to how she came to lead the committee. If you want to get right into the questions about redistricting, skip to the third video. But if you want to know more about Jessica Cigna, watch the first two videos.

UpriseRI: How was the Providence Ward Boundary Committee different this year?

“The Charter outlines that it should be a five member committee… There are now six different criteria that … we should use and it’s really specific about the approach,” said Cigna. The approach includes mandating “public meetings, public hearings, the public hearing before the [final] map is to be voted on, the report…

The Charter “doesn’t actually say the the [Committee] has to be independent, it just says it has to be five Providence residents.” Then Council President, now Lieutenant Governor Sabina Matos, who chose the members of the committee, “told the story of what happened ten years ago,” said Cigna, which was a redistricting process that resulted din a lot of “trauma” to communities and neighborhoods.

This is why Matos chose to have some “non-political” people at the table to balance the city council members on the committee, said Cigna.

UpriseRI: How do we adhere to the sixth criteria, of being blind to the addresses of sitting city council members, when three councilmember are on the committee, with full knowledge of both where they live, and where many other elected councilmembers and potential challengers live?

“I don’t think you can get away from redistricting being political,” said Cigna. “The City Council has to vote on [the final map]. Even if you have a wholly independent elected committee, you still have voters electing those people to that post… [Redistricting] is always going to have some level of politicking in it.”

What Cigna did was to make sure that anytime someone wanted to meet with the consultant, Election Data Services, “I was in the room.” This prevented elected office holders and candidates from eliminating neighborhoods, streets and individuals from their Ward – or adding them in. “I didn’t see that once,” said Cigna.

“Three of the early maps cut some City Councilors out of their Wards, and no one on the committee told me that until we got to a hearing and [a member of the public] came up and spoke, saying he didn’t want his councilor cut out of his Ward and I was like, ‘I didn’t know that had happened.'”

UpriseRI: One of the most controversial decisions made by the Committee was hiring Election Data Services, which is a company run by Kimball Brace, who is a very talented person when it comes to redistricting and gerrymandering, but is also very controversial.

“We only got two bids back, and if your were to take the names off the bids, there was a clear choice,” said Cigna. “And let’s take the redistricting our of it. After the state does their work and the cities and towns do their work, the next line of work is to draw the precincts, and that’s the polling places… And if you just look at the precincting section of each of those bids” Election Data Services was the clear leader.

“And that’s really the most important part of all of this,” said Cigna. “You want to ensure that voters are going to get the right ballot. It’s really important that voters are in a precinct that defines where they are.”

Election Data Services has also done the work before and they have an intimate knowledge of Rhode Island and Providence. About Ryan Taylor, who works for Election Data Services and draws the maps, Cigna said, “I think he knows the city and state better than a lot of residents here.”

UpriseRI: What are your thoughts about the state adopting an Independent Redistricting Commission?

“As I said, I don’t think anything is going to be completely independent, it’s an inherently political process,” said Cigna. “I do think there’s something to be said on balance to perhaps have more public members and more public members with certain skill sets… Perhaps that’s an idea: Think about who’s on the committee and why.”

UpriseRI: The state redistricting commission made the decision to reallocate some people being held at the ACI in Cranston back to their home districts. Was the Providence Ward Boundary Commission legally obligated to do this as well?

“Because I was paying attention the state process, mostly as a learning experience, I was bringing information back to my committee members and saying, ‘What I’m hearing at the state process is that a lot of Providence residents are getting up and saying they want these people to be counted back in their home districts… So I think that it’s a good idea that we consider this,'” said Cigna.

375 people currently in the ACI were counted as living in Providence. “Our ideal population went from 12,729 to 12,754 per ward. It wasn’t a large difference,” said Cigna.

The wards in the new maps were drawn so that they would withstand a legal challenge, were someone to be successful in reversing the effort to reallocate prisoners through a court challenge.

UpriseRI: Do you feel you have a deeper knowledge and understanding of Providence now, because of all the work you’ve done?

“I was really humbled by all the people who came out and spoke to us,” said Cigna. “We heard over and over again people talking about trauma and people talking about the things of the past. There was a lot that people brought up to us that was visible in the work that we were doing but not under our control or under our purview. People were talking about when the highway came through and destroyed neighborhoods or about this new building going up and the neighbors don’t want it.

” I do think I have a better sense of how people [interact] with their neighborhoods, live in their neighborhoods… We heard a lot of unique viewpoints I hadn’t really heard before… so yeah, I think I do have a better understanding of the city.”

UpriseRI: What lessons learned did you learn through this process that would help Providence, or even the state, do this better in ten years?

One thing that needs to happen is that the “Complete Count Committee needs to start its work sooner,” said Cigna. “The Complete Count Committee is where we educate people about the census… Because the front page of the Constitution says that the census is for ensuring equal representation in government. I understand that it’s fraught with issues, from the beginning, and we’ve rectified some of those issues over the history of the country… and I understand that people say they don’t trust the census, they’re afraid of the census, but we have to get over that hurdle…

“We kept our congressional seat, we gained almost 40,000 people in the state, there’s a great reason to celebrate, but it should have kept going.”

UpriseRI: In other words, we should be doing the work now to ensure better, more accurate census and redistricting in 2032. It’s important for representation, but also can impact Rhode Island’s economic future?

“When I worked for HousingWorks RI there was a Projecting Future Housing Needs Report and we were saying there’s going to be this large growth in households.That report didn’t get a lot of coverage – it seemed idealistic, saying there’s going to be a need for so much more housing… and now almost a decade later, we’re seeing that’s it’s going to happen.”

These new households need to be aded to lists maintained by municipalities to ensure more accurate census counts in the future, said Cigna.

UpriseRI: How much pushback did your committee receive in this day of people actively doubting the democratic process?

“I think we did hear some of that,” said Cigna. Online and even in person, some people claimed the process was fixed, or favoring incumbents, “but it wasn’t the overall sense of it. People came up and talked about what really mattered to them. The hearings were just that – hearings. We spent a lot of time just listening to people.”

UpriseRI: Since you’re not running for office, what was your motivation in taking on this task?

“I thought it was a really great opportunity to learn a new skill set of managing this process and bringing all the skills that I have,” said Cigna. “I don’t often like putting myself out in the spotlight. I like the behind the scenes – getting everything in order and putting it out in the world.”

After our interview the final report of the Providence Ward Boundaries Committee was released. There will be a Providence City Council hearing on the final map on March 28 at 5pm.

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